Ever since Alice split the atom, sending a cloud of local arugula leaves to rain down on restaurant salad plates, chefs in the Bay Area and beyond have professed a single credo: Local, good. Not so local, not so good.
Chefs in more densely cosmopolitan places do artifice. At Moto, a Chicago restaurant, I tasted puréed fried rice extruded by syringe into liquid nitrogen cool in a Mr. Science way, but also, well, gross. But artifice is for suckers who live anywhere other than here, we tell ourselves. Here by the bay, all chefs need to do is buy the best of what's local and get the hell out of the way.
In theory, that's true. But practice isn't always so obliging. A couple of recent meals in the restaurant at Wente Vineyards, which has a new chef, were a reminder that local has its limits.
It's a sweaty Friday, and I'm lurching in traffic on the outer reaches of I-580, an in-between place that feels anything but local the realm of the monster truck and the Dubya decal. But turn into Livermore proper and you're in the all-too-familiar landscape of the monster subdivision, cut through by a sunbaked roadway whose yellowy sheen looks like oxidized silver.
The Wente compound (restaurant, golf course, and amphitheater) sits at the end of its own road, amid vines tied with shimmery wisps of Mylar to ward off crows, past putting greens like algae pools seeping up through the sere landscape. It all feels slightly unreal, like some fairy-tale rancho, only one tended by valets who look like frat boys.
Executive chef Jerry Regester began cooking here last summer. He has cheffed at Domaine Chandon and Carmel's Highlands Inn, which makes him something of a destination restaurant specialist. He's also a chef who proclaims his allegiance to all things local. Indeed, his menu descriptions are essentially a stringing-together of farm and artisan producer names statements of quality, with the romance that clings to local sourcing. And prices hefty enough to stoke some pretty steep expectations.
Look closely at the chef's salad of Baia Nicchia Farms organic tomatoes four varieties tumbled casually around a slice of buffalo mozzarella, a beautiful anticomposition in green, mottled red, and yellow, studded with inky-black oil-cured olives and a spoonful of onions braised in red wine. The salad's sourcing was brilliant. Baia Nicchia is a tiny farm and seed company in the Sunol Water Temple Agriculture Park, about as sustainably pure a venue as a chef could ever hope to sign an invoice from.
Had it ended there, with conception, sourcing, and the menu description, it would have been an incredible salad. But you can't eat a menu description, and as far as the actual eating went, this was one mediocre salad. Three of the four tomato varieties on the plate were seriously firm, an inexcusable lapse, and all were unpleasantly icy. If there's one thing that kills a tomato's sweet and faintly skunky perfume, it's refrigeration.
I do get that there's a degree of difficulty with a tomato salad. It's one of those deceptively simple things that is in fact really hard to pull off, especially now that heirlooms have spread as far as supermarkets, and variety alone no longer impresses. Success is a question of getting the variables right: chunkiness, acidity, salt, and temperature. Call it the measure of a chef.
I get the idea that Regester's measure belongs on a less-subtle scale than a tomato salad calls for. In fact, his talents seem better suited for bold and tangy, something a starter of preserved yellow chanterelle mushrooms made clear. Poached in vinegar or lemon, the heap of pickled fungus embraced sour in a big way. It came drizzled with honey from Swarm Catcher (another score from the Sunol AgPark), next to seared radicchio a less than satisfying first course, maybe, but probably fantastic as a side for duck or pork, especially on a wintry day.
An appetizer of tempura-battered squash blossoms, also from Baia Nicchia, was just right for summer. Stuffed with softly grainy ricotta from Bellwether Farms, they came with a scattering of grilled corn kernels and vinaigrette that contained small, freshly shelled chickpeas. The tempura batter was nicely veil-like, but the oil the blossoms were fried in spoiled any delicacy they might have had. Instead, they tasted like doughnuts, a sure sign of overused fry oil.
In a different way, oil marred the pleasure of a Frog Hollow peach, red grape, arugula, and frisée salad. They were dressed with vinaigrette packed with the seedlets of what must have been gazillions of vanilla pods. The effect was perfumey rather than sweet, with the specter of shadowy tannins. Yet the dressing felt oily on the tongue a sensation that comes from olive or other vegetable oils with the flavor bleached out. Not only that, but some of the arugula was battered and bruised, and the frisée looked rusty at the cut ends, as if it'd been prepped the day before. Shocking as that was given the prices, it wasn't the worst I found here.
That honor goes to an almost inedibly salty hunk of sautéed halibut, plopped on a heap of just-okay salad of quinoa, corn, and land cress. The kitchen salted the poor slab of fish so heavily that it marred the texture, drawing out so much moisture that the remaining hunk of protein wasn't just stiff and dry it seemed woolly, a bit like salted fresh cod on the way to becoming bacalao.
Cooked to the lower register of medium-rare, a pan-fried Grimaud Farms duck breast was certainly moist. The accompanying puddle of risotto spiked with duck confit and Teleme cheese was salty in a good way, but a bowl of potato gnocchi was about as uninspired as meatless pasta entrées usually are. The soft, starchy little dumplings were jumbled up with well-pedigreed yellow squash and Baia Nicchia tomatoes, natch, but even they offered little incentive to finish the portion.
Ironically, the best thing I tasted at Wente had nothing to do with anything harvested from any farm, local or otherwise. The house-smoked, double-cut pork chop was the kind of unabashedly meaty thing that big men eat, the kind who smoke cigars and wear enormous tropical-print shirts. It was thick as my wrist, surrounded by a layer of sticky fat turned to carbon in the smoker, and radiating the sweetest imaginable hit of wood smoke. Scooping hunks of the pork through a puddle of old-school meat jus, I could have been in some steakhouse anywhere. Chicago. Vegas. Hell, Pittsburgh.
Which goes to show you: Sourcing sometimes can be the worst substitute for taste.
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